In these intertwined essays on art, music, and identity, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, the daughter of African American and Italian American parents, examines the experience of her mixed-race identity. Embracing die far-ranging stimuli of her media-obsessed upbringing, she grasps at news clippings, visual fragments, and lyrics from past and present in order to weave together a world of sense. The result is a compelling meditation on identity and representation.
About the Author
Aisha Sabatini Sloan earned her MA in cultural studies and studio art at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and her MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. She taught writing at the University of Arizona for six years and is currently studying to become a yoga instructor.
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The Fluency of LightComing of Age in a Theater of Black and White
By Aisha Sabatini Sloan
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2013 Aisha Sabatini Sloan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBirth of the Cool
Los Angeles glinted like an Austrian crystal through the windows of my mother's Toyota Corolla. "Why can't daddy and I be white like you?" I whined. We were on the freeway. Gray paths snaked their way toward the ocean. Green signs held a collection of numbers and letters, some of which indicated that we were almost home. My mother said, "I love your coloring. I wish I had skin the same color as you." The word glint comes from the Middle English glent, and it is of Scandinavian origin. My origin is Italian and Black—brown Afros on both sides.
At the time I had a boyfriend, and he was blonde. We had recently gotten married during a free period at our preschool, which was owned by an energetic Indian woman named Hapi. She called the school Happyland. Alec had lifted some sort of fabric from my forehead so that we could kiss. I was four and brown and curly. Something about this romance made me regret myself, my appearance. If he said something to make me feel that way, I have forgotten what it was.
Los Angeles glints because of the way sunlight illuminates the smog that hangs in the polluted air. Blonde hair also glints. Brown, curly hair, for the most part, absorbs things. Like tangles and curious fingers. What I didn't take into consideration during this brooding moment of self-hatred was that Alec's little sister was brown like me. Adopted perhaps. Los Angeles was like that—multicolored. I grew up in a wealthy Westside neighborhood and attended schools dreamt up by former hippies. The city's racial metaphor for me felt like a pot of soup with a nice chef's salad, something casual and light and accompanied by a glass of iced tea. But this didn't prevent me from getting upset about race.
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in what some people have called "1918, question mark." He would eventually study music at Juilliard, travel the world, and live on in history as a founder of bebop whose piano improvisation was a cold, crazed shiver of genius. His face appears on a pin I once bought from a jewelry case in southeastern Alaska. Outside, the tide brought coldness from the ice-blue glacier across Kachemak Bay onto a beach littered with driftwood. Which is to say, his influence has permeated the globe.
I imagine him as a five-year-old boy, standing on a porch of peeling blue paint, prophetic. He closes his eyes and sees images of his future flash before him: a glacier, a cactus, the Berlin Wall. Then he opens them and sees the green hot South. He looks down on his skin, forty-two years before the Civil Rights Act. The journey from this small boy's present to the life he would lead seems enormous and impossible.
My girlfriend recently described Monk's piano playing with her hands. "You know how he goes over it, and you know what he's not playing, but he doesn't give it to you?" Her hands move around and establish an invisible area, then trip over it. "And he goes over it, and around it, and you want it so bad ... or you don't? And finally he gives it to you. Or he doesn't." It strikes me to think of this man, alive in the long, pale hands of a twenty-five-year-old. Her fingers pantomime his jazz in the dry Tucson morning, underneath chirping birds. Long, skinny branches with thin thorns make shadows on the patio floor.
My father's mother, Argusta, was born in Alabama. Her family lived next door to a white family, and all the children played together. The father of the neighboring family was a violent man when he drank, and his children would often run to my great-grandparents' house for safekeeping. They hid in the attic for hours. My great-grandmother made sure they were safe, then took out her Bible and waited downstairs for their father to arrive. "I know what you're going to say," he would moan, as she pushed him down and began to recite passages. Argusta and my great-aunt Cora May waited near the train tracks for their neighbors after school on cold winter days, so that they could all walk home together, as their parents had commanded.
One of the girls in the white family was nicknamed "Nig." Eventually, she grew up and got married. She came back home one day to show off her new husband, and bumped into my grandmother, who went into a fit of nostalgia. "Nig! How you been!" She screamed, and gave her old friend a huge hug. The husband went into a rage. He demanded that my grandmother get away from his wife, and how dare she address her that way? "What did you do?" I ask my grandmother on the phone. "I just laughed. I know it wasn't funny, but I couldn't help myself. He was making such a fuss."
My grandmother told me this story one recent afternoon. I was preparing to make dinner for company. "What chu makin'?" She asked. This is a question my mother asks me incessantly too, minus the southern twang. All of our conversations are often devoted to the preparation and consumption of meals. Every day my mother calls her mother-in-law in Detroit to chat on her way to work while slowly creeping along the 10 freeway toward downtown LA. "Your mamma made pork roast last night," my grandmother will inform me when we talk later on in the day. "I'd give anything for one of her salads."
The Internet includes footage of Thelonious Monk playing a concert in Berlin, in 1973. When you look at his face, he shows you nothing. His expression pretends to cover his interior life, but this is only a farce, because what's inside him comes spilling onto the piano keys, along with the sweat dripping off his hot, dark face. He wore a round, half-sphere-shaped hat, which often had a button on the top. He was known for his suits. Is it just my imagination, or do people tend to call well-dressed black men "dapper"? We'll call him that, but our eyebrows will be raised. His face and movements projected an air of mystery, as if to say, "There is more of me. You think you've got it, but you can't have it."
I have rented Clint Eastwood's documentary on the artist, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. In one scene Monk stands in front of a door marked "Gentlemen." He begins to spin circles in place. Then he stops, takes a drag from his cigarette, and says, "I do that on the street. Somebody else do that, they'd put him in a straitjacket. Oh that Thelonious Monk, he's craaazy." Someone is laughing in the background. It is rare that Monk's mumbles clear the way for distinguishable words and phrases in the landscape of his language. Sometimes he would get up in the middle of a concert to spin in circles while somebody else was playing. It's possible that he was actually bipolar, but something about Monk's persona seems purposefully insolent. Childish. And in a way, black. A woman I know once described a film director by saying, "He has the most bizarre outlook on life that I've encountered in a long time. He has such innocence, but it's such a black innocence, childishness about him." This idea seems relevant here. It is childish to spin around in a circle on stage when you are the featured performer of a concert, and it is bizarre, but in what way is it innocent?
My parents met in Detroit, in the public library where they both worked. My father called the circulation desk that my mother was manning and told her to look up to where he was standing several feet away. Their first date was to go to a friend's barbecue.
Several dates later, they were outside a restaurant for dinner. A man flashed a gun at them and said something about interracial couples. He and my father began an argument that eventually led them into the street. My father removed the gun from the man's possession, a tiny pistol. When my parents moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, the two of them would go to the movies and wait for black women to tsk their tongues as they passed, calling my father a sellout with their narrowed eyelids and not looking my mother in the eye at all.
But I was rarely the target of overt racism during my childhood. There was the one time when, on a class trip to Catalina Island, a group of friends and I sat down with a kid from another school group. He lost a game of Go Fish and called me a nigger. "Why don't you go back to Africa with Martin Luther King?" he asked. Because my friends and I were smart enough to see the nonsense in his slander, and laughed about it, I was fine. I collected my playing cards from him, and my friends and I plotted to step on his toes at various points during the remainder of the boat ride.
What hurt about the experience was not his limp attempt at hatred, though. What bothered me was the loaded silence surrounding the issue. Three of my teachers, all of them white, sat in a booth within earshot of his tirade. I later told them what happened, and they said, "Yes, we heard. It seemed like you had everything under control." The fact that they hadn't said anything to me about it afterward made me feel strangely abandoned. Did they think this happened to me all the time? I had never been called that word before, and I wanted an adult to acknowledge its power and then dismiss it. Silence was a common way of handling the issue of race for most of the politically correct people I grew up around. But small questions would emerge like bright green pricks of grass out of the quiet. "Why is your mom white?" kids always, eventually, muttered—a sentence I always anticipated and always felt like a slap. There is no simple answer to this question, which is profoundly philosophical if you think about it.
When I was ten, a kid in my class did not like my curly hair, despite the fact that my mother had spent an hour combing, moussing, and decorating it with ribbon. It hung in shiny ringlets to my shoulders. He made a sour face and asked, "Why is your hair like that?" Every day for the next four years I wore it in a tight bun. Then I cut it off. Some might call me oversensitive.
During one period, later in my life, I listened to Billie Holiday sing "Solitude" over and over again, until her particular timing and the sweet croon of her inflection sewed the song onto my body. I can't pull on the melody without disturbing the sadness that it helped me survive. My first experience of heartbreak was nothing compared with what, of her life, Holiday was infusing into her music. In his essay "The Uses of the Blues," James Baldwin describes the time when someone asked Miles Davis why he was giving money to Holiday, when he knew she'd just spend it on heroin. Davis replied, "Baby, have you ever been sick?" The songs that Billie Holiday sings are draped in the biography of her own sadness, which is tugged on and burdened by the added sadness that her singing evokes in other people.
One of Monk's better-known compositions is called "Epistrophy," a play on the word epistrophe, which is pronounced the same way. Like anaphora, the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences, epistrophe is a figure of speech meant to create emphasis by repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. In one video recording of Thelonious Monk in Berlin, he plays the Ellington standard "Solitude," which immediately brings Holiday's voice to my mind. Toward the end of the song, he avoids playing the low note, which is supposed to punctuate the end of each line. This way, the most powerful part of this profoundly sad song is suspended in high notes. The pause of silence where a note should be feels like a comma, or an ellipsis, and he leaves us to fill in the blank. This way, the most emotionally conclusive moment of the line is left hanging, bringing to mind a singer too distraught to finish her sentences. If he were a singer, at this point in the song he would be saying:
I sit in my – [chair]
I'm filled with de – [spair]
There's no one could be so – [sad]
With gloom every – [where]
I sit and I – [stare]
I know that I'll soon go – [mad]
On that last line, instead of pausing or playing the note that evokes the word mad, he waits for the time of the word to pass, then shoves two discordant notes together, off to the side, capturing the pitch of crazy without leaving enough space for a word.
In Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, Monk's agent tells a story about the musician being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter asks, "What kind of music do you like?" and Monk replies, "I like all kinds of music." The reporter asks, "Do you like country music?" And Monk does not say anything. The reporter tries again. "Did you ... do you like country music?" Monk looks at his agent and says, "I think the fella's hard of hearing."
I went to an elementary school with about five black kids, total, and I was one of three in my class. A girl named Erica, who lived in a wealthy, majority black neighborhood, was more of an acquaintance than a good friend, but we bonded. I spent a lot of energy making sure that everyone knew that just because I was one of two black girls, I was not necessarily interested in the only black boy in our class, a nice kid named Robert. Which is to say, I was a bit of a shit.
Despite this, I was not ignorant or disdainful of my own blackness. One day during PE class, Erica and I were across the playground from each other. As had happened on numerous occasions prior, our PE teacher, who was white, began calling my name to Erica, who pretended that she could not hear her until finally announcing, "I AM EH-REE-KA!" back. "That's it!" we told each other afterward. We arranged for an appointment with the principal, to discuss the dismissal of the already unpopular PE instructor, due to ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination. The principal humored us for half an hour, and we bragged to our parents about our political activities, but no one was fired.
One afternoon at Erica's house, I sat at the kitchen table while she sat on her father's lap. "You ever give your daddy sugar?" he asked me.
"No," I said.
"Why not?" he prodded. The moment pauses, clicks and glints in my memory.
I sat confused as he and Erica spent the next two minutes laughing so hard they drooled. "What's so funny?" I asked. A glint is a spatially localized brightness. Her father caught his breath. "I don't mean sugar, I mean, do you ever give him love? Give him hugs and kisses?" I was black enough to get pissed off at my PE teacher, but not quite black enough to know how to talk right around real black people.
Thelonious Monk was born cool. After all, his given middle name is Sphere. But his childish, bizarre behavior is both black and uninnocent because he participates in a larger tradition in which absurdity is a means of social protest. In other words, his innocence is feigned.
By spinning around in a circle onstage, he is escaping what must have been at that time a stultifying, deracinated social role—as a black man and a musician—with unpredictability. Rather than make an appointment with the principal in order to communicate "fuck you" to his PE teacher, he stands in silence at the sound of the wrong name as it is shouted across the playground. He dances in place, sings a song, does cartwheels—anything that is not what the woman is asking for. He lets the PE teacher yell her voice hoarse until she is able to realize her own mistake. If she walks away thinking that he is insolent, deaf, or an idiot, she is walking away believing a lie. And that lack of truth is what will hurt her, not him, in the greater scheme of things.
At another point in Eastwood's documentary, Monk walks into a recording studio. A short white record producer approaches him, sort of grabs at him in an attempt at greeting, and says, "Don't be jivin' me, man!" after which point he laughs hysterically. Monk is as still as a vase of flowers. The producer asks, "Where'd you get that hat?" and Monk replies,
"Oh yeah. That was given to me in Poland."
I cringe as I watch the producer dance around the room in a strained attempt to be similar to Monk, or to the other blacks or jazz musicians he's encountered. The result is, though unintentional, a near minstrel show of dissonance. But Monk's worldliness tucks itself into his own personal sphere of sophistication, into the inaudible soup of his speech, where the producer can't touch him. He chuckles underneath his breath. During some songs, he leaves a lit cigarette on the keys. When Monk plays "Solitude," the perspiration on his face reflects the light. To glint is to throw a brief glance at something, or to take a brief look. It also means to be shiny, as if wet. To glisten. To be looked upon by light.
Monk litters quiet moments throughout his music like a bread crumb path of crystals for us to follow. Where one might expect emphasis, he leaves us with silence, generating an exaggerated sense of loss. We fill in the missing beat, note, or word with a manifestation of our own longing. He makes the act of listening into an exchange or conversation. Like a church congregation, we say "chair," "despair," "sad," "where," "stare," and "mad," as if on cue, tripping off the edge of his melody, where he refuses to give us the comfort of an ending we anticipate. This is a form of communication that goes against the notion of communication altogether, a kind of induction of silence into language. By doing this, he suggests that we know it—we know this thing we are missing—already. We can put our hands around the space that it inhabits.
Excerpted from The Fluency of Light by Aisha Sabatini Sloan Copyright © 2013 by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Birth of the Cool 1
Fade to White 29
The Strongman and the Clown 37
Silencing Cassandra 55
Resolution in Bearing 77
White Space 95
Acknowledgments and Permissions 129